Ecumenical Services – a Little Known Type

In most cases (to be true: in most cases that I know) Ecumenical services are designed in the following way: Ministers from different denominations meet at a negotiating table. They come to mutual agreements on Scripture readings, hymns, intercessory prayer, the Lord’s prayer, maybe they write new prayers. A preacher is chosen, and eventually, all the necessary offices in the liturgy are shared among the ministers. Done! The result is a newly created service consisting of elements that everyone can agree too. It is a “least-common-denominator-”service.

My experience with such Ecumenical services is the following: Although the preparation is very complex and takes a long time, the services lack spiritual depth (aside from joyful exceptions of course). Why? Because a “least-common-denominator”-service neither offers the full treasure of my own liturgical tradition nor the full treasures of other denominations.

I think that many Catholics do not know that the “Ecumenical Directory” from 1993 – the fundamental law for Catholic participation in Ecumenism – offers a second type of Ecumenical service. The ED says in articles 116–119:

Sharing in Non-Sacramental Liturgical Worship

116. By liturgical worship is meant worship carried out according to books, prescriptions and customs of a Church or ecclesial Community, presided over by a minister or delegate of that Church or Community. This liturgical worship may be of a non-sacramental kind, or may be the celebration of one or more of the Christian sacraments. The concern here is non-sacramental worship.

117. In some situations, the official prayer of a Church may be preferred to ecumenical services specially prepared for the occasion. Participation in such celebrations as Morning or Evening Prayer, special vigils, etc., will enable people of different liturgical traditions—Catholic, Eastern, Anglican and Protestant—to understand each other’s community prayer better and to share more deeply in traditions which often have developed from common roots.

118. In liturgical celebrations taking place in other Churches and ecclesial Communities, Catholics are encouraged to take part in the psalms, responses, hymns and common actions of the Church in which they are guests. If invited by their hosts, they may read a lesson or preach.

119. Regarding assistance at liturgical worship of this type, there should be a meticulous regard for the sensibilities of the clergy and people of all the Christian Communities concerned, as well as for local customs which may vary according to time, place, persons and circumstances. In a Catholic liturgical celebration, ministers of other Churches and ecclesial Communities may have the place and liturgical honors proper to their rank and their role, if this is judged desirable. Catholic clergy invited to be present at a celebration of another Church or ecclesial Community may wear the appropriate dress or insignia of their ecclesiastical office, if it is agreeable to their hosts.

The final sentence is the crucial point: “share more deeply in traditions which often have developed from common roots”. How should Ecumenical services be fruitful if we disguise our own liturgical treasure to others, if the others disguise their liturgical treasures to us, and if we limit ourselves to ritual elements that we know already anyway – or create new ones that belong to neither of the different traditions?

When I meet other denominations, I want to learn something new. But this requires place and space for the strangers and the strange. Hence, I prefer to visit other denominations’ services over creating new services in a joint effort.

Here in Innsbruck, we managed to install an annual Ecumenical service of that type during the “Season of Creation” in September/October: One of the denominations – so far this have been the Lutherans, Serbian Orthodox, and Roman Catholics – invites the others to join a denominational service. No Eucharist, but a Liturgy of the Word, Vespers, or something else. The hosting church decides what parts of the liturgy can be taken over by the guests: For example, a Catholic cantor sings the opening psalm in the Orthodox Vespers, or a Lutheran pastor reads the Concluding Prayer in the Catholic Vespers, or the Catholic bishop preaches in the Lutheran church. If the hosting church does not want to assign any part of the liturgy to any of the guests, this is fine as well.

Sometimes people regard this type of celebration as an Ecumenical regression. Indeed in such services, not all denominations are equal. But in my eyes, Ecumenism is not about conformity on the lowest possible level. It should rather have to do with sharing spiritual and liturgical treasures. The little-known type of Ecumenical liturgical experience according to ED 116–119 is a helpful option for that aim, and I think it should be used much more often.


  1. My diocese does this with the annual LARC dialogue service. When the Catholic’s host, it is vespers, and the only difference is that prayers for the deceased are omitted from the intercessions.

  2. Don’t some traditions use the model you criticize for all their services? “Ministers … meet at a negotiating table. They come to mutual agreements on Scripture readings, hymns, intercessory prayer, the Lord’s prayer, maybe they write new prayers. A preacher is chosen, and eventually, all the necessary offices in the liturgy are shared among the ministers. Done! The result is a newly created service.”
    There is an assumed form, ie scripture followed by intercessions, that largely comes from our shared traditions. Some traditions specify more — which scripture to use, already written prayers. Or they may specify that a cleric or a committee makes all these decisions.
    I can certainly see advantages to your idea. Guests at each other’s worship is certainly an important step in ecumenism. But is it the same as a service where the whole world worships together? Using what is common to all, so that all can belong, probably does make it harder to share what is distinctive.
    Idk. I guess I am just trying to reframe your idea to help me think about it.

  3. Growing up in my small town, we had an annual “Christmas Carol Walk” between most of the churches in town the Sunday before Christmas. The town was small enough for most to walk easily between the buildings. There were two Catholic churches, my Polish parish and the “Irish” parish, two German Lutheran, one ELCA and one Missouri Synod (which did not take part in this or any other ecumenical project), a UCC Congregational, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish, and a Russian (sic) Orthodox parish. When it started in the mid 1970s, it was probably literally the first time in their lives that most people who participated went into a building other than their own.

    It was billed as a chance to high-lite your particular tradition and ethnic customs of the season. While most sang carols in the language of their founding ethnic tradition, there was little else that brought to the fore-front the denomination of the particular church or community. Only the Orthodox sang an actual liturgical service in their tradition. The nod to ecumenism there was that they sang “Silent Night” a cappella in Church Slavonic as the crowd was leaving to move on to the next stop. So for some of the others, you walked out at the end knowing that a church was say, Polish or German, but not necessarily that they were Catholics or Lutherans. Beneficial that we were doing SOMETHING together? Yes. Helpful in UNDERSTANDING each other’s tradition? Not so much.

  4. Some years ago here in a city-centre area, churches of different denominations arranged to visit one another’s churches for a normal service, where visitors from other denominations would be welcomed, and some words of commentary or explanation given if thought helpful. This was to take place once a week on a weekday in Lent. In this arrangement, the host congregation would have its own service as normal, and visitors would take part as members of the congregation. The purpose was to offer a taste of normal services rather than specially designed ecumenical services.
    For churches in the Reform tradition, the service was non-sacramental. In our Catholic parish we had our normal evening Mass.
    The exploration of one another’s services went well, insofar as one can judge. A curious aspect was that some visitors to our Mass in the Catholic church were disappointed. Why? No altar server turned up, and so we did not have someone to ring the bell as we would normally at Mass; and those visitors were looking forward to hearing the bells being rung!

  5. The practice in our area is for us RCs to host the Stations of the Cross on Palm Sunday evening. Some people follow the procession while others remain in their places and turn to follow.
    This has proved to be very popular.

  6. Although I do enjoy attending the services of various churches, wretch that I am, I have to admit I prefer to experience their excellent cuisine. Tops on my list is the local Lutheran Church where the ladies are well known for their chocolate cake. Annually the Polish Nationals offer a day full of Polish meats and delicacies which are devoured by the populace. The Russians very kindly invite all participants to partake at tables laden with well prepared meals. The Episcopalians offer triffle and tea. The Greeks share lamb cooked on a spit along with their well-known pastries. The Italians are generous with pasta, and I am looking forward to S. Joseph’s Day with its abundant zeppole. The French supply us with tortieres, petits fours, and croissants. I do like to visit Mexican parishes for huevos rancheros amongst other comestibles.

    My own Rhode Island still observes May Day breakfasts which are usually sponsored by the Baptist Churches although I understand the Quakers were responsible for its origin. Who doesn’t like Johnnycakes from Kenyon Mills and clam cakes amongst other foods!

    Enough of these cogitations! Holy Saturday’s noon bells can’t come soon enough, but I should now cast away these thoughts of darkness.

    1. At least in the States, our common culture may be reduced to the almost Pavlovian reaction congregants would have if the sounds of incoming email/text message alerts were randomly heard throughout the worship space.

  7. For a beautiful example of the second type of Ecumenical service, watch the Service of Evensong in the Presence of Pope Benedict at Westminster Abbey. It’s on YouTube here.

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